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Microsoft patents the double-click

Opening a software program with two quick clicks is a process familiar to countless users of handheld computers, yet next time, beware, you may be engaging in a process patented by Microsoft.

The US Patent and Trademark Office on 27 April granted a patent for a "time based hardware button for application launch" in which a click of a button can start different programs if it is clicked once, twice or held down for several seconds.

Could it be? Could Microsoft now make other companies pay for the ubiquitous practice of tapping a computer mouse twice to open a program on a computer screen? What next? A patent on control alt delete?

The reality is perhaps less sinister than it at first sounds. The patent relates to different ways of holding down a hardware button to launch programs and other functions on "a limited resource computing device."

That refers to a button on hand-held devices running Microsoft's PocketPC software, not to the double-clicking of a mouse on a PC, a Microsoft spokesman said. Mouse-wielding PC users need not worry.

However, whether or not the patent will affect Microsoft competitors, palmOne or PalmSource, remains to be seen. A palmOne spokesman, Jim Christensen, would only say, "We have not reviewed the Microsoft patent, and at this time have no opinion on its validity or applicability."

San Francisco patent consultant Gregory Aharonian, argues that the application highlights shortcomings in the Patent and Trademark Office, where examiners short on time and resources are hard-pressed to root out earlier examples of similar technology.

"Unless the examiner had a patent or journal article in front of them, it's going to be hard to reject the application,” he said.

The US Federal Trade Commission last year said the patent office should not grant patents so readily, as those granted for obvious concepts, such as one granted in 1895 for putting a gasoline engine in a car, can impede progress by preventing competitors from improving on them.

Patent and Trademark Office spokeswoman Brigid Quinn said anyone was free to challenge the patent.

"If people feel that the patent is either not novel or that it's obvious, they can send us the evidence and if indeed the prior art raises a question of patentability we will examine it," Quinn said.

Microsoft, which spends nearly $7bn yearly on research, seemed a bit mystified at the reaction in the technology media. The company spokesman, Marc Miller, noted that the company receives "dozens of patents every week."

Sources: Reuters, Seattle Post Intelligencer

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